AFTER much talk of the deplorable state of Britain's schools, the Government has put aside about pound;6 billion to improve the quality and efficiency of buildings.
But on what basis will this money be distributed among local authorities and schools? And what criteria will be used to establish the cases of greatest need? Apparently, it will all be done with something that school managers must soon be familiar with: asset management plans.
Imagine an enormous inventory compiled by every local authority, each one detailing every square inch of the school site - dimensions of the main buildings, annexes, playing fields, outside toilets, tool sheds.
Imagine, also, a catalogue of the state of repair of all these items. Finally, picture a centralised database holding every such detail of every school and college in every authority throughout the country and you will start to get some idea of the scale of the task.
By 2002, the Government anticipates that this data will have been successfully compiled nationwide. After this date, no funds for school improvements, repairs or extensions will be made available, unless they have already been committed to paper and catalogued in the authority's asset management plan. So no alterations without prior representations, so to speak.
Thus, the plans will revolutionise the way authorities bid for
capital expenditure, and create a systematised storehouse for the massive backlog of repairs and building needed in schools, allowing works to be prioritised according to a grand scheme of relative need. This is the theory.
Ken Maund is a director at Capita, a property services company in Cardiff which is being commissioned to assess and record the condition of school premises around the country. He believes the move is a step in the right direction.
"Asset management plans are forcing people to take a closer look at their buildings, to collect information about them and to use that information to make efficiency savings," he said.
"In the past it has been the people who shout the loudest who have often tended to get the most money. While these plans won't necessarily be a cure for that, at least we'll be able to substantiate why a particular school should be closed, whether to spend more on this or that school, or indeed build a new school. They will answer basic questions, like 'Where are we?' and 'Are schools suitable for the job they're supposed to be doing?'"
But while authorities will be responsible for the compilation and upkeep of their maintenance schedules, the Government's Fair Funding reform means that schools will be more responsible for repairs and done.
Paul Martin, responsible for capital development in education at Waltham Forest, north-east London, says heads and governors may be obliged to write an extra chapter in their school development plans addressing infrastructure and maintenance.
"Authorities will have to gather and hold the information but schools will have to do the work. The overall picture is far from clear," he said. "As a formula, it does appear to be more equal but this is a very large and detailed task that is unlikely to bear immediate fruit."
Clive Lockwood, buildings and development manager for Lancashire county - one of three pilot authorities for the new process - also sees the system as an improvement, in principle.
He said: "The general message is that if this allows us to have a transparent process for prioritising capital expenditure, either at school-level or across the county, then this is a good thing - because at least people know what the processes are, where they stand in the priority order and whether their aspirations are realistic."
But Geoff Black, his counterpart in Gloucestershire - another pilot authority - is concerned that there will be an "over-delegation of money".
"We could find that delegating too much money to schools leads to the loss of a central pot of capital," he said.
In cases where schools need extensive repairs or renovation work, he suggests, there may no longer be sufficient centrally-held funds at the disposal of the authority to enable these "higher-scale jobs" to be done.
Kathryn James, of the National Association of Head Teachers, is also circumspect.
However equitable these recent developments seem in principle, she argues, there are, as yet, no safeguards against the possible emergence of a grace-and-favour mentality based on arbitrary judgments about relative need and how favourably an authority looks upon particular schools.
"When the Fair Funding mechanism resulted in repairs and maintenance funding being delegated to schools, work that had been outstanding in schools for a number of years was suddenly identified by some authorities as essential, with schools needing to find extra cash to support the work," she said.
"I am not opposed to asset managment plans but I do have concerns that they need rigorous checking and their objectivity assessed before they can be used to distribute capital funding on a national scale."